Saturday, June 9, 2018

Pepper Adams - An Interview With Gene Lees

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

When Adams is at his peppery best - furious, angry, pouring into the horn a wealth of fiercely felt emotion - it brings to mind his nickname while on the Kenton band. As bandmate drummer Mel Lewis puts it: “We called him ‘The Knife’ because when he’d get up and blows, his playing had almost a slashing effect on the rest of us. He’d slash and chop and before he was through he’d cut everybody down to size."

After a prolonged primary exposure to baritone saxophone in the form of Gerry Mulligan’s light and airy sound, Pepper Adams’ tone on the instrument was something of a revelation the first time I heard it.

Deeper, darker, growly - Pepper’s sound took a bit of getting used to but what I got right away was how facile and dexterous he was in creating improvised lines on the cumbersome instrument.

Pepper’s ideas just flew out at you in an inexhaustible stream of creativity.

And lest you doubt where he was coming from, Phil Woods once described Pepper as “... a Bebopper down to his socks.”

Over the years, Pepper became one of my favorite Jazz musicians and I eagerly sought out opportunities to hear him in person or on record.

Here’s an interview that Pepper gave to Gene Lees in 1963.

“THERE is something professorial about him. He is inclined to tweeds, usually a little rumpled. Brown-rimmed glasses and an extremely high forehead give him a look of perpetual slight surprise, and he seems to be peering at things intently, trying to figure them out.

He is Pepper Adams, and there is nothing professorial about him except his intelligence and his catch-all brain, one of the most retentive in jazz.

He is a holdout. One could call him a rebel, except that it doesn't quite fit. He seems like a conservative— but that doesn't quite fit either, because what he is conserving is rebelliousness—at a time when most jazzmen have lost it.
Most men of his generation have gone into the studios in search of decent livings with which to raise their families. Adams stays on the road and struggles to make ends meet. A married man wouldn't be able to do it, but Adams at 32 seems to be a confirmed bachelor.

"I admit my attitude is unusual," he said recently. "I'm in the business because I like music. If you can't play music, why be in the business?

"That's the one reason I've never settled in New York. I require a forum from which to play. In other words, if something like Donald Byrd's little band came up, I'd go out with it immediately. It was a starvation band, but it was a good one."

The reference was to a group with which Adams played for a couple of years. It was billed as the Donald Byrd-Pepper Adams Quintet. It never made money, and Byrd went into debt trying to keep it going. Those who heard it — and too few people did, which is why it went under —  thought it was one of the most stimulating groups in the business.

It is significant that Adams refers to it as "Donald's group," when it recorded under their two names. Thus far, Adams has been disinclined to assume the responsibility of leadership. In this he is like Paul Desmond — a star soloist who has never really wanted his own group. For years Adams was willing to play Desmond to Byrd's Dave Brubeck. But Byrd doesn't have a group now — he is teaching at the High School of Music and Art in Manhattan — and so Adams is on his own. Inevitably, he's thinking of forming a group. "Thad Jones and I have been discussing the possibility for years," Adams said.

And that, too, is significant. Jones is from Detroit. Whenever Adams mentions a musician with whom he has close rapport, that musician is probably a fellow Detroiter, as Byrd is. The Detroiters in jazz have a curious local loyalty. Hearing one of them talk, one would think that jazz was invented in an abandoned tool shop of the Ford Motor Co. and that no one but Detroiters had really got the hang of playing it yet.

The Detroit group includes the Jones brothers (Hank, Thad, and Elvin), Tommy Flanagan, Paul Chambers, Barry Harris, Billy Mitchell, Lucky Thompson, Kenny Burrell, a reed man named Bill Evans who saved everyone a lot of confusion by changing his name to Yusef Lateef, and one Sylvester Kyner, who quite understandably changed his name too — to Sonny Red.

Why do they stay so closely in touch with each other? Partly it is because they are old personal friends — Adams and Byrd, for example, have been close since their middle adolescence.

"But it isn't only a personal thing," Adams said. "You find a lot of similarity in the Detroit players. They're all good, thorough musicians who know what they're doing. And you'll notice that they're all players with a strong personal conception.

"I think you'll find, too, that all the Detroit players are very proficient in their knowledge of chords. That doesn't necessarily mean that they're chordal players, but they do have this knowledge."

Adams, it will be noted, is the only white member of the Detroit School. (Donald Byrd once said dead-pan to an interviewer: "Pepper and I met in the midst of a Detroit race riot." The interviewer dutifully wrote it down.) In the period when Adams was growing up, he found himself attracted musically to what young Negro musicians in Detroit were doing — and ignored by most of Detroit's white musicians.

"I find even to this day," Adams said, "that saxophone players in the Stan Getz vein are offended by my playing. Not that they necessarily find it good or bad — just offensive.

"Harry Carney and economics influenced me to play baritone. I was working in a music store when I was 15, and I had a chance to buy a good used baritone cheap."

Carney, whom Adams met when he was 12, influenced him in the sound he uses — "specifically, in the breadth of sound."

"It is a sound that fits better the character of the instrument," he said. "But it also fits better what I want to do. You have a pretty wide-open field with the saxophone. Who is the authority for what is the correct sound? You can listen to Prokofiev's Cinderella Suite, played by the Moscow Symphony, with Prokofiev conducting, and hear in the tenor solo a sound that is laughably bad. But it is what Prokofiev wanted — the intention is humorous — which is often the case with saxophone in classical orchestras.

"Coleman Hawkins' sound fit what he wanted to do? and Lester Young's sound— even though it got him laughed out of the Fletcher Henderson Band when he first came to New York — fit what he wanted to do.

"My sound fits what I want to do.

"It's easier to get mobility with a lighter baritone sound, similar to that of tenor. If you play a fast run with a full sound, it's likely to sound like a run on the piano with the sostenuto pedal down.

"To make the run clear, you have to lightly tongue every note — to get the proper separation of notes. If you were doing it on tenor, or playing with a lighter baritone sound, you would not have to tongue it; the keys would articulate for you, generally speaking. The need to lightly tongue the notes makes the timing element more critical.

"You know, if you're used to baritone, and you pick up a tenor, it sounds so damn shrill you scare yourself. It's not all psychological, either — the sound coming back to you lacks some of the overtones, and so it's lighter than the sound someone out in front of you is hearing.

"When Wardell Gray and I worked together in Detroit, we used to trade instruments. It worked very well, because we got used to each other's horns. Also, we used very similar mouthpieces and reed setups."

THE EARLIER likening of Adams to Paul Desmond was not casual. There is something oddly similar about them, in their attitudes to work  (both would prefer simply to walk onstage and play in a good group, the responsibility for which is in someone else's hands), in their scholarship (both are voracious readers), in their politics (both are saddened Stevensonian Democrats, though Adams these days is revealing his Detroit nationalism in calling himself "a Walter Reuther Democrat"), and even in their persistent bachelorhood. Neither has ever broken his ties with his hometown: although both live in Manhattan when they're off the road, they maintain mailing addresses at their parents' homes — Desmond's in San Francisco, Adams' in Detroit.

But they are most alike in their humor, which is discursive and shot through with improbably obscure references. They have never met, yet the following nonstop passage, elicited by a question about Adams' background, could, in its style, have come from Desmond:

"Leonard Feather's Encyclopedia of Jazz states that I was born in Highland Park, Illinois . I was really born in Highland Park, Michigan, which was discovered when I was inducted into the Army in 1951. I went to the Detroit city hall for my birth certificate and was advised that I didn't qualify. I evidently had not been born in Detroit, as I had always assumed. By simple deduction, I arrived at the conclusion that I must have been born in Highland Park.

"Highland Park is one of two enclave communities which are bounded on all sides by Detroit, except where they are bounded by each other. The other is Hamtramck, fabled in Polish song and story and one record by Gene Krupa, who is also Polish.

"Hamtramck has no place in my chronicle, since I wasn't born there, but I thought you would like to know. I was, as I mentioned, born in Highland Park.

"Highland Park is something of a misnomer, since it is not a park and it is no higher than any of the rest of the flat land around Detroit. According to a Corey Ford book published in the 1920s, the lowest mountain in the world is Mt. Clemens, Mich., which attains a height of six feet above lake level.
"I regret that I was not born in Highland Park, Illinois, as Mr. Feather's estimable encyclopedia asserts, because it is a somewhat higher-class community than Highland Park, Mich. Perhaps it is injudicious of me to make this observation. The city fathers of Highland Park, Mich., are a pretty salty bunch. They made Detroit detour a proposed expressway and go around them."

Adams' life in jazz also has been discursive. Recently, for example, he worked with Lionel Hampton for four months — "the longest I've been on a big band in about seven years." He was having trouble finding work; the slow withering away of jazz clubs had affected him as it has everyone else in jazz.

"Lionel had 12 straight weeks of work," Adams said. "I felt I owed it to my creditors to accept the job."

Since leaving the Hampton band ("it's more correct to say the band left me — Lionel went to Japan with a small group"), Adams has taken an apartment in New York, the first he has had anywhere in about three years. Does this indicate that he will at last follow so many of his colleagues into the studios?

"I wouldn't find any satisfaction in it," he said. "When I lived in Los Angeles, I was making all kinds of records and more money than I've ever had in my life. But as soon as I got my card in Local 47, I left, and I haven't been back since."

For a detailed look at Pepper’s career, you might wish to checkout Gary Carner’s Pepper Adams Joy Road: An Annotated Discography which we covered in this linked book review.

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